Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stuart Galbraith IV
  • Review Date: Feb 29, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (Blu-ray Review)


Alan Rudolph

Release Date(s)

1994 (August 30, 2023)


Mirimax Films/Fine Line Features (Imprint/Via Vision)
  • Film/Program Grade: A
  • Video Grade: A-
  • Audio Grade: A-
  • Extras Grade: A-

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (Blu-ray)

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Director and co-writer Alan Rudolph’s Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) is about as good a film as could be made on its subject, but it’s also one with inherent problems that are basically impossible to completely overcome.

The Mrs. Parker of the title is writer Dorothy Parker, one of the great wits of the 20th century, whose caustic observations are still widely quoted. Parker (played in the film, superbly, by Jennifer Jason Leigh) was the central female voice of the Algonquin Round Table, a celebrated informal daily gathering of New York’s intelligentsia from 1919 to 1929—playwrights, novelists, journalists, columnists, actors and others, among them: Charles MacArthur (Matthew Broderick), Edna Ferber (Lili Taylor), Robert Sherwood (Nick Cassavetes), George S. Kaufman (David Thornton), Alexander Woollcott (Tom McGowan), New Yorker founders Jane Grant (Martha Plimpton) and Harold Ross (Sam Robards), and many, many others.

The film, primarily, explores Parker’s empty, largely unhappy life, including her marriages to abusive, war hero-turned-drug-addicted first husband Eddie Parker (Andrew McCarthy) and later to writer-collaborator Alan Campbell (Peter Gallagher), with a particularly ruinous affair with playwright MacArthur in-between. The true love of her life, however, is critic and humorist Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott). He married with children, theirs is a platonic but deep friendship always on the verge of but never quite becoming something more. He’s as devotedly protective and caring toward Parker as she is self-loathing and self-destructive.

The film does a remarkable job bringing dozens of celebrated names accurately to life, with Jennifer Jason Leigh particularly outstanding as Parker. At first, I had serious doubts about Campbell Scott as Benchley, until I realized that my image of him was rooted in Benchley’s much later appearances in short subjects and occasional feature films of the 1930s and ‘40s. In fact, Scott is about the same age Benchley was during the time the film is set, and he has Benchley’s familiar voice and mannerisms down well. Lily Taylor and Tom McGowan likewise stand out. Indeed, out of the 30-odd famous names that pass through the picture (a few fictional or composites), only Harpo Marx, an outlier of the Round Table, doesn’t quite seem accurate.

The ambitious screenplay also makes many interesting observations, such as that the raucous notoriety of the Round Table, ribald, booze-driven gatherings with great humorists constantly trying to top one another, limited their literary potential relative to the truly great authors of that time, that it conveniently kept them from more meaningful writing on the major issues of the day, and that so many of them died young, often from alcoholism-related illnesses, including Benchley. By the time she died in 1967, Parker, as the film notes, had outlived almost all of them.

There are two sizable problems that, as good as the film is, are basically insurmountable. One is that the greatness of most of these Round Table members, Parker included, is literary. It’s their dexterity with the written word that brought them fleeting or everlasting fame. Throughout the film these characters often quote themselves, but that’s not the same as reading their words on the printed page; it just can’t have the same impact.

Related to this, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle is the kind of film viewers already familiar with many of these figures will find fascinating, while those who never heard of the likes of George S. Kauffman or Alexander Wollcott (their loss) will be left bemused, wondering what all the fuss is about. Understandably, the film was a tough-sell, even with its ensemble cast of familiar names: also in the cast are Jennifer Beals as Mrs. Benchley, Wallace Shawn as an Algonquin manager, Gwyneth Paltrow as a famous (but apparently fictitious) actress, Keith Carradine as Will Rogers, and Cyndi Lauper as a party guest. Ultimately it took filmmaker Robert Altman, acting as producer, to use his clout with Miramax and Fine Line to get the film made.

Nevertheless, while these characters were the equivalent of movie stars in the 1920s, they were unknown to general moviegoers by 1994. The film might have fared better had it been made in the 1970s, when personalities popular with college students and the art house movie crowd, people like Groucho Marx, Woody Allen, and Dick Cavett, spoke highly of the Algonquin writers, prompting many of us of that generation to explore those works. Mrs. Parker’s screenplay understates the political, typically leftist activism of many Round Table members, and late in life Parker was outspoken in her support of the Civil Rights Movement, even willing her entire estate to Martin Luther King, Jr. All that would probably have appealed more to 1970s film audiences than a mid-1990s one. That flurry of renewed interest in those writers may have been the last of its kind though, admittedly, their quips, particularly Parker’s, do frequently take the form of social media memes today.

Though primarily set in the 1920s, the film bounces around in time, with the clever visual device of having the all the 1920s scenes in full color, while those set in the 1930s-‘50s in black-and-white.

Imprint’s Blu-ray of Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle presents this Panavision production in its original 2.35:1 screen shape. In 1080p from a 2K scan, the image is generally good if a little grainy, though that appears partly the style of cinematographer Jan Kiesser. The LPCM 2.0 stereo is impressive, adding depth to Mark Isham’s Jazz Age-style score. Optional English subtitles are included and the disc is Region-Free.

Bountiful extras include an audio commentary by director Rudolph, along with a new (2023) interview. Also appearing in new interviews are actor Campbell Scott and casting director Pam Dixon. Older supplements include a 1994 interview with Rudolph, a 2006 interview with Isham, trailer and TV spots, and the featurette Would You Kindly Direct Me to Hell? The Infamous Dorothy Parker.

An obviously personal and passionate project of its director, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle plays best for those already familiar with the colorful personalities involved. For that audience, the film has much to offer and is highly recommended.

- Stuart Galbraith IV